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The ski season finally begins

Well, now that summer seems to have finally arrived in Whistler – just in time for the solstice – it’s time to pack away winter clothes and ski gear and...

Well, now that summer seems to have finally arrived in Whistler – just in time for the solstice – it’s time to pack away winter clothes and ski gear and... go skiing? Just writing the words seems perverse; actually contemplating the act reminds me uncomfortably of some drug-induced, tangential, fairy-tale reality triggered by a misguided suggestion or question at a moment of reduced capacity, an ill-spoken word launching the totally unprepared mind into a topsy-turvy Wonderland where everything seems to be not exactly as it should.

The reduced capacity was mine, the White Rabbit was the editor of a ski magazine. Huddled in Phoenix, Arizona – Motto: Hot enough for ya? – wondering how in the world any place can have 19 days of 100°F plus heat in the month of May, a month when Whistleratics awoke to the sound of avalanche bombs being lobbed for the first few weeks, I was fantasizing cool thoughts. I wanted to get back in time for a last day or two in Harmony Bowl. I wanted to ski naked, to roll in snow and feel goosebumps crawling under my skin. Okay, maybe not naked.

"Ya wanna go skiing in Argentina?" the voice at the other end of the line said.

"How much and when?" I answered.

"Two weeks, free and you get paid," I thought I heard him say.

"This is a joke, right?"

He could have dangled heli-skiing in a retrofitted Russian Army helicopter in Kamchatka or polar bear wrestling at the north pole at that particular moment and I would have said sure. Promising a taste of winter to a desert-dweller in the summer has roughly the same effect travel brochures of the Caribbean have on Canadians in deepest, darkest February.

It wasn’t until I hung up that I began to believe it was all just an elaborate practical joke. Skiing in Argentina? I searched for everything I knew about Argentina. Long, narrow country at the bottom of South America. No, that’s Chile. No, wait a minute, that’s Argentina too. No wonder I get them confused. Governments that yo-yo between charismatic dictators and military juntas led by deranged generals. No, that’s Chile. Or maybe that’s Argentina too. Gauchos, pampas, tango, that’s gotta be Argentina. Safe haven for retired Nazis? Oh yeah, that’s Argentina for sure. Or maybe Paraguay. Better be safe; remember not to ask any old guy what he did during the war. "I vas a gaucho on the Pampas." Wasn’t Madonna the first lady down there? Don’t cry for me, Argentina. That’s about it if you don’t include Patagonia which may also be in Chile which, come to think of it is where ski racers and itinerant ski patrollers go to ski in the summer. Did he say Argentina? Do they have mountains in Argentina?

If ignorance is bliss, I had reached nirvana. I decided to rely on the wisdom of others and remain an uninformed traveller. The unseen Hand of Fate had set me in motion and, by God, the unseen Hand of Fate would direct me to, well, to wherever it had in store.

Along the way, of course, I picked up just enough knowledge to know there were in fact mountains in Argentina – the Andes, of course. There are ski areas. They take credit cards. I don’t need shots. And if I needed any further proof the place is civilized, they make chocolate where I’m going and still believe beef is good for you.

Having never been on the downhill side of the equator, I’m certain the first thing I’ll do after clearing customs is prove the Coriolis Force for my own eyes and try the local beer, if not in that order then certainly in the reverse. And after all these years, I’ll finally get to use the other side of the star chart and search for the Southern Cross and whatever else is in the sky down there.

My bags are packed, my passport’s current, I have Yankee dollars – the New World currency – and somebody else is responsible for arranging airplanes and rental skis. The only thread left dangling in my life is getting around to answering the perennial cosmic question: What kind of ski season did we have?

I think I’ve been avoiding this question in much the same way I’ve been denying George Bush actually got elected President of the USofA. I know I have to come to grips with both things sooner or later. It’s not like I can just let a whole ski season pass without comment, although it was the kind of season that doesn’t lend itself well to comment. An unquotable season.

It could be my own fault. Sometime early in the season I gave away a perfectly good pair of rock skis to Charlie Doyle, in part to encourage him back onto two planks, a direction he’d professed a leaning toward, in part because I was convinced there was enough snow to get out the "good" skis, and in part because they were just longer skis than I prefer anymore. That I could have kept using those skis until roughly the middle of April can be attested to by the fact my "good" skis are now next year’s rock skis, having acquired a base equal parts shale and P-Tex.

2000-2001 was the year winter never really came. It was the year of no powder. The year the bombs fell silent. It was the year CME made a killing on snow removal or at least made up for the beating they took two winters ago, the middle of January being the last time I missed getting my car out of the driveway before the plow manoeuvred around it.

It was the year of springtime in February and winter in April. Whatever savings Whistler-Blackcomb realized by closing Blackcomb when they did may well have been blown up by the expense of late-season avalanche control that seemed to last well into May.

It was the season people groused about the lack of deep snow but seemed oddly satisfied when things weren’t as bad as they thought once they overcame their inertia and dragged themselves up the mountain. It was a winter of discontent.

Two years ago when we had so much snow – 45 consecutive powder days if memory serves – it literally changed the terrain, rounding out features and making rocky chutes rock-free, I rated it a 9.5 and hoped I lived long enough to see 9.8. Based on that benchmark, 2000-2001 might have been a 4.0 and I hope I never have first-hand knowledge of what a 3.5 is like.

Next year I’m hanging on to my rock skis and hoping I remember how to ski powder. Because next year is going to be epic.

Hasta la vista, baby. I’m goin’ skiing.




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